The Prayer of Desperation
The book Deep Down Dark, by Hector Tobar, tells the story of the 33 Chilean miners buried 2000 feet underground for over three months back in 2010. Think about that. They were a half mile below ground. They were 3 miles from the mine entrance via the spiraled underground ramps they used to get to where they were working when a rock fall trapped them. And they were down there for 69 days. That’s over three months! Talk about a brutal experience!
They were trapped in a large space, including a room they called The Refuge. They had no idea if anyone would come for them. On August 5th, a Christian man named Don Jose Henriquez, turned to one of the other miners, a man named Mario, and whispered, “God is the only way out of this.” In front of the other miners, Mario announced, “Don José, we know you are a Christian man, and we need you to lead us in prayer. Will you?”
Hector Tabor explains what happened next:
From that moment forward Henríquez became known as “the Pastor” to his fellow miners because as soon as he opens his mouth and begins to talk it’s clear that he knows how to speak of God and to God … Henríquez drops to his knees and tells the men they should also do so, because when you pray you have to humble yourself before your Creator. “We aren’t the best men, but Lord, have pity on us,” Henríquez begins. It’s a simple statement, but it strikes several of the men hard. “No somos los mejores hombres.” We aren’t the best men. Víctor Segovia knows he drinks too much. Víctor Zamora is too quick to anger. Pedro Cortez thinks about the poor father he’s been to his young daughter: He left the girl’s mother, and he hasn’t even done the basic fatherly thing of visiting his little girl, even though he knows his absence is inflicting a lasting hurt on her.
“Jesus Christ, our Lord, let us enter the sacred throne of your grace,” Henríquez continues. “Consider this moment of difficulty of ours. We are sinners and we need you.” Just about everyone who was at the entrance to the Refuge or inside is on his knees … Henríquez is a man of God, and suddenly here, in this tomb, the religious severity that many of them found annoying during the everyday encounters of the A shift is exactly what they need. “We want you to make us stronger and help us in this hour of need,” Henríquez says. “There’s nothing we can humanly do without your help. We need you to take charge of this situation. Please, Lord. Take charge of this.”
It’s obvious that Don Jose was a man of prayer. This wasn’t the first time he had cried out to God, or spoken with God. Sadly, many of us, even those of us who follow Christ, are much more likely to pray in times of desperation than at any other time. When life is good and things are going well … well, we just don’t think about it. It’s when life falls apart that we, like the 32 other miners trapped with Don Jose, that we become willing to pray.
Turn with me to Jonah 1:17-2:10.
Today, we’re continuing our journey through the Old Testament book of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet in ancient Israel, sent by God to Nineveh, in the heart of enemy territory, to warn the people there to repent of their brutal, inhumane treatment of others and turn their hearts to God. God told Jonah to get up and go, so Jonah got up and went. In the opposite direction. His goal was to go as far in the opposite direction as he could go. Not because he was afraid to die or didn’t like Gentiles in general. It was because the Assyrians living in Nineveh were Israel’s enemy. And they were a brutal people. And Jonah knew that if they repented, God would forgive them. And Jonah didn’t want that to happen.
So when God told him to go east to Nineveh, he went west. And found himself in the middle of the storm of the century, so to speak, on the Mediterranean Sea. Storm was so bad it scared the professional sailors on the ship he’d hired. Jonah, of course, as do the sailors, realize that God is in the storm, pursuing Jonah, and so he convinces them to toss him overboard. At that point, things get better for the sailors and the ship, and they continue on their merry way. But calm for a ship and calm for a person bobbing on the water are two different things. So things go from bad to worse for Jonah. And he finds himself sinking in the Mediterranean.
I mean, look at the words Jonah uses to describe his predicament. Look at V. 3. And then Vv. 5-6. Jonah is sinking and drowning. And then he’s eaten by a fish. It generally isn’t a good thing to be eaten by a fish. And it is there, in the belly of the great fish, that Jonah finally prays. Isn’t it sad that it took Jonah, a prophet of God, hitting one of the lowest rock bottoms to ever rock bottom to finally cry out to God in prayer? When God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah doesn’t pray, he runs away from the task. When the storm threatens to destroy Jonah’s ship, the unbelieving sailors pray, first to their false gods and then to the one true God. But Jonah doesn’t pray. He just tells them the storm will stop if they toss him overboard. He knows this storm is God pursuing him, just as God desires to use him to pursue the evil residents of Nineveh. But still, he doesn’t pray.
Why are we as the people of God so stubborn? Why do things have to get desperate, rock bottom, before we’ll cry out for help? We project the illusion of being in control, of being on top of things, even as we’re flying over the rail of the ship and into the sea. I mean, think about it. God has surrounded us with gifted healers – doctors and nurses, through whom he brings healing. But we won’t go to the doctor until there’s no hope of getting better in any other way. God has surrounded us with wise people who can listen and help us sort things out and give us strategies for dealing with the challenges we face, but we won’t go to therapy until our lives, or our marriages, or both, are falling apart. If we won’t even go to one another for help when we need it, what makes us think we’ll turn to God for rescue before things get so bad? We want to be in control. We want to have the answers. We want to have it all together. But, in those rare honest moments, when we’re really willing to take off the mask, we hide behind even from God and from ourselves, we know that we don’t. Too many of us have to come completely to the end of ourselves, find ourselves in desperate situations, before we’ll turn to God, asking for help and healing and salvation. And then, if and when things get better, we go right back to doing things our own way. Why are we so stubborn?
Jonah doesn’t want to talk to God. In fact, he wants to get as far away from God as he can get, because he doesn’t want to do what God wants him to do. But God pursues him, not to torture Jonah, but because God wants to reach out to Israel’s enemies in love through Jonah. God wants to give Jonah a front row seat to watch his mercy and grace redeeming love in action, but Jonah doesn’t want to see it.
Oh, Jonah gets that front row seat. Unfortunately for Jonah, it comes through desperation as he drowns in the Mediterranean Sea. Jonah wants the Assyrians in Nineveh to experience God’s justice and judgment. Well, this is Jonah’s taste of God’s justice and judgment. He is receiving his just reward for running away from God. And the just punishment for his sin – the just punishment for all sin – is death. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death.” Jonah has, in disobedience, said “No” to God. And his “No” to God is also a “go to hell,” quite literally, to the people of Nineveh. And God’s answer to that is to give Jonah a taste of his judgment.
Sadly, Jonah isn’t able to speak to God directly until he has no other option. Up to now, Jonah has had some control. He could have gone to Nineveh, he chose to go to the port in Joppa. He could have turned back there, he chose to hire a ship. He could have turned back yet again, but he chose to get on that ship. As the sailors shoved off and sailed, innocently and unknowingly, toward the most dangerous, relentless storm they would face in their careers, a storm that represented the judgment and justice of God over Jonah’s disobedience, he could have asked them to turn back. He chose to go down into the ships hold and fall asleep.
But now, drowning, Jonah has been stripped of all control. No act of his will, even turning toward God, can save him. He is completely at the mercy of God. The God he has been running from is now his only hope for rescue, for salvation. And finally, in desperation, Jonah cries out for help. Look at V. 2. And then down at V. 7. In the worldview of ancient Israel, “sheol” was the shadowy place where the dead went. It wasn’t death itself. It was the place of the dead. Jonah was at the bottom of the sea, seaweed growing on the seabed wrapped around his head, choking him – he says “at the root of the mountains,” far below the surface of the sea – his life was slipping away. He is as good as dead. And there, he cries out for help. And God’s salvation comes. But it looks like anything but salvation. He gets eaten by a great fish. This is the part of the adventure movie where we are shocked to say goodbye to one of the heroes, the one in the party who seemingly dies, or actually dies, when things are at their worst.
This is Gandalf hurling over the edge of the great pit, caught up in the flaming whip of the mighty balrog. This is Obi Wan Kenobi dying at the hands of Darth Vader in the first Death Star. This is Iron Man dying after saving the universe by defeating Thanos once and for all. Seems like one of the heroes always has to die. And the best heroes are flawed heroes. Heroes we can relate to. People who fought not just the evil forces out there but the evil force in here, in their own heart. And Jonah is no different. He’s real. He struggles to do what God asks him to do. And when the great fish swallows him whole, things seem to go from worse to the ultimate in worst. He’s going to be digested alive in the belly of the fish.
Back in June of 2021, on the Atlantic Coast in Cape Cod, fisherman Michael Packard dove into the ocean to check on his lobster traps. But when he did, he found something bigger than one of the live crustaceans he was hunting. Much bigger.
Without much warning, he was suddenly swallowed by a giant humpback whale. Inside the maw of the great mammal, Packard was preparing himself for the end. “I thought to myself, ‘Hey, this is it. I’m going to die.’” But he didn’t die. “He was in a whale’s mouth for 30 to 40 seconds, and then he was spit out,” said his mother, local painter Anne Packard.
As it turns out, humpbacks don’t usually like to eat people, according to marine mammal expert Peter Corkeron. He said, “Humpback whales are ‘gulp feeders’ who eat by unhinging their mouths and taking big lunges through the water. And when you’re 50 feet long and weigh 30 tons, sometimes you don’t really have too much fine control over where you’re headed.” He added that, since the whale swam toward the surface before spitting Packard out, it’s possible that the whale was trying to help him out.
As astonishing as this latest adventure was, Anne says that’s not even the first time Packard’s life was miraculously spared, noting that he’d survived a plane crash in Costa Rica. She’s encouraged her son to write a book about all of his adventures, but he demurred, saying he’s not much for all the attention. His mother said, “He doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it, but it’s becoming a big deal. I mean, how many people have been in the mouth of a whale?”
The good news is that no one in this story – not the Assyrians in Nineveh, not the stubborn, disobedient Jonah, not the sailors who turned to God in their distress and began to worship him – no one is outside the reach of God’s love, mercy, and grace. And in the end, they all receive it. Look at V. 6. Now remember, we’ve been saying this since week 1 – It isn’t about … the fish. Whether this is an actual event with a real giant fish, or whether it’s a parable in which the central character is a real prophet named Jonah – even conservative biblical scholars are divided on that. One scholar says, “It is idle to seek its name or to consider zoological possibilities with a view to identifying the species. It is idle to ask whether the Mediterranean could have contained such a monster. That is not the question. The real question is: of what is this fish the sign?”
Could this be a real fish? Absolutely. Could this be a parable? Also absolutely. Wondering about the fish is like wondering what kind of rock the Roman soldiers rolled over the mouth of the tomb Jesus was laid in. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t the point. The point is, at his lowest point, when all control had been taken from him, God in his grace came to Jonah’s rescue. And in the process, he continued in his quest to rescue the residents of Nineveh too. Romans 6:23 doesn’t end at “The wages of sin is death.” It goes on to say, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If God is a God of justice, then he must also be a God of judgment. And sin must be dealt with justly. But God is also a God of love and mercy who doesn’t want his people destroyed. So in Christ, God makes a way where there was no way. In Christ, God takes our sin upon himself, and offers us Christ’s life in an even trade. Just as God met Jonah at the moment of death and rescued him, even though it probably didn’t feel like rescue as the giant jaws closed over him, so God in Christ reaches out to us, dead in our sin, and offers us life if we’ll place our faith and trust in him.
That moment of death was the deciding moment for Jonah. Either he would cry out to God and trust God to save him from death, the result of his disobedience, or he would refuse and die. Jonah chose to cry out to God. He chose to seek deliverance, even though, caught in seaweed on the Mediterranean sea floor, he didn’t see where deliverance could come from. And God answered. Look at V. 10.
But even before Jonah’s feet touched dry ground again, he gives thanks to God for his salvation. Look up at V. 9. When God acts to save us, that is our only appropriate response – to worship him. Not just with songs or whatever, but from the depths of our souls, understanding that we have really, truly, been miraculously snatched from death and given life in Christ. Worship is simply honest gratitude to God for his unexpected mercy and rescue from the depths of our souls. For Jonah, that meant offering sacrifices as soon as he could, and vowing to continue in the worship of God. Which, interestingly enough, is exactly what the formerly unbelieving sailors, now believing, God-trusting sailors, offered to God from the deck of their ship and when they got to their next port, after God calmed the storm. It certainly took Jonah longer, didn’t it?
Why is that? Why are we so stubborn? Why do we, as the people of God, have such a hard to seeking rescue from God and then, when God acts, offering genuine, heartfelt thanks to God? Why is gratitude so hard for us?
Our God is truly mighty to save. I think the problem for most of us is that we haven’t really understood the depth of our sin, or the nearness of our death, the death from which God has rescued us in Christ. Jonah gives thanks in spite of the uncertainty of his situation. Knowing that he did not deserve rescue. For a haven in an unlikely place. In spite of his deep discomfort with God’s ultimate plan to offer the same rescue to the evil residents of Nineveh. In spite of his unresolved questions and issues. Things aren’t tied up in a nice little package now for Jonah. They never are, even at the end of the story. He actually still disagrees with what God wants to do. But now he’s willing to be God’s agent of grace. Let us embrace God’s saving grace for us, and for those around us, whether we like them or not. Let us pray.